by Sally Jennings

Last night at midnight, I slammed the lid on the takeout pizza box, powered down my computer, and got up stiffly, as usual. One more late night was worth it, even if no one in my family knew, if no one at work could be told, if my own boss never guessed. Years of evenings, weekends, and holidays spent well were finally beginning to pay off. Sometimes I can hardly wait to quit my day job, now that my burgeoning investment portfolio is beginning to show firm evidence of my extracurricular activities.

In a matter of months, perhaps, I expect to pack up the engraved sign that graces my desk at work, take down the cartoons and slogans from my walls, collect my spacey coffee mug and special mousepad, and call it quits after six years in the position of Secretary to the Head of Quality Control. Until three years ago, it was a dream job, working for Bobby Rice. It was even better than any job I had at the other companies where I spent the last twenty years. Bobby was a real jewel to work for; considerate, polite, and in spite of our disparate positions, tried hard to treat me as an equal. He had some difficulty with the English language, though. So he asked me for help, and I gladly corrected or wrote his memos and letters, more than willing to make a positive contribution to his career. He was working very hard to become a better manager, and the polished writing added extra refinement to what many considered was already a class act.

So it was no surprise to me when, within three years of becoming Department Head, Bobby Rice was promoted to Vice President of Operations. Although I was very proud of him, I remember feeling somewhat sad and a little apprehensive when I delivered his box of personal desk items to his spacious and elegant new office up on the twenty-fifth floor. His new secretary, Karen, noticed my reaction, and kindly took me out to coffee, so I could fill her in on any special needs he might have. After our little chat, I felt better, since Karen agreed to help Bobby with his letter-writing if he asked. I told Bobby as I said goodbye to him, in private, that Karen had agreed to help, but that he should never admit any secretary was writing his letters. Never. Soon he would get the hang of it and then no one ever had to know. Three years of steady success later, Karen told me he still seemed to be taking my advice. I was truly proud that Bobby Rice was blossoming as a Vice President. His replacement, however, was another story.

I knew my boss was not the Mr. New and Improved model the moment Bobby introduced me to Mr. Alan J. Black, Jr.. "Al, this is my l-l-lovely secretary, your new secretary, Sharla." Bobby had never called me "lovely" before, because he wasn't a chauvinist, or hung up on the differences between men and women, but he had been about to say "letter-writer." I had shaken my head slightly at him just in time, and the "l" came out as the stuttered first letter of "lovely." As for my new boss, Al, "lovely," it turned out, along with "dear," "little lady," "hon," and other belittling names, was what Mr. Alan J. Black Jr. had always called his secretaries, to their faces, or behind their backs. He asked me to call him Mr. Black, never Al or Alan, and added that he really preferred that I call him "Sir."

At first, I was shocked. I had been under the impression that this type of chauvinist had become extinct. In twenty-six years, I had seen some evolution of the middle management species, and even felt personally responsible for small changes resulting from confrontations with a few who were blatantly, horrifically sexist. Understandably, I was a little upset that Mr. Black wanted to step backwards twenty years into the manure heap of inequality I thought we had all laid to rest. But I really like my job, since it leaves me with energy to moonlight almost every night. So, while I balked at his overtly sexist remarks to begin with, and dropped hints, I soon lost interest when my moonlighting began to pay off. After the first two years, I admitted defeat in the area of equality reform.

Now, with three years of detailed performance notes about Al, I have to wearily admit that possibly Al just isn't bright enough to get it. To this day, Mr. Alan J. Black Jr. thinks nothing of asking "Could we have another cup of that great coffee you make, Sharla, dear?" in front of the Head of Finance. Or "Would you mind just running downstairs to the news kiosk for my new bus pass, hon?" when he has three men from Engineering in his office (they laughed, didn't they wish they could do the same to their secretaries!) And even when he asks me to do him a little favour and buy a birthday gift for his wife or his "niece," as he calls his mistress, I don't complain. I simply say "Yes, Sir, certainly, Sir," and do as he asks, request after request, week after week, payday after payday.

You see, I have a use for all Mr. Alan J. Black Jr.'s endearing charms, a use he would never guess. I have waited it out for three years, and will likely need to continue as his secretary for almost another year. I have plenty of friends in different departments, friends I don't want to give up just yet, or expose to my other identity. See, except when I am at my job, or asleep, or taking a little time off for sanity, I write. I write about the various things going on around me, about people I meet, and yes, with copious changes for disguise, about Mr. Alan J. Black, Jr., yes Sir, certainly, Sir! I have three published novels, two of them bestsellers, to my credit so far, number four at the publishers, and a sequel to book number four underway. I need a foil for my successful characters. I need Al Black.

It was with a twinge of fear, then, that I found a note from Al on my desk this morning, "Sharla, dear, would you do me another little favour on your morning break and pick up a couple of copies of George Belfrey's bestseller Payday for gifts for my wife and my niece?" He explained later, "They are both hooked on this guy's books, and I even enjoy skimming certain chapters, picking up pointers on office management." I must admit, I felt a flush of giddy success, but it was quickly followed by gut-wrenching fear. George Belfrey is my pen name, and I have no wish to be discovered.

Later, over lunch, I drew comfort from the thought that Mr. Black would never suspect I was bright enough to write, especially to write a bestseller, especially under a man's name. After all, that morning, when I brought Belfrey's books in to him with the receipt, after he had groused about how wealthy these authors must be, he shocked me with the admission he had often dreamed about writing a book about corporate management strategies someday, when he took early retirement. I had just recovered from a sudden urge to gag when he flung out another one of his little suggestions, "You might enjoy this man's first book, hon. It's out in cheaper paperback now, and it's a little easier to understand." You have to hand it to Al, he is sexist, but he is so totally focussed about it. He always manages to undercut our conversations with some reference to how little I earn, or to something else he imagines I lack because I am a woman. Anyway, I managed to redirect my negative feelings into a protest that I could get on the waiting list to take any of Belfrey's books out from the library.

And then his afterthought floored me. Al asked me to find out how I could get the books autographed by the author. Not whether, but how. My heart was in my mouth. I lied that the bookstore clerk had already volunteered the information that the author didn't do book signings. But Al wasn't having any of that. He called over his shoulder on his way to lunch, "Maybe contact the publisher, hon. Tell them who is asking --- give them my title and name." How impressive! I thought, I think the author already has that, and there is still a problem. Then he continued, "I know you will think of something. Why, my little lady, I'll bet you can't even imagine what you could do if you tried. Take heart, it might be deceptively easy."

Something deceptive and easy was exactly what I was going to have to do to fulfill Al's request, since my book contracts specifically exempt me from signings. So, caught between a rock and a hard place, I am about to improvise. It is, after all these years, not beyond me to use large egotistical flourishes so typical of middle management types like Alan to invent a signature for George Belfrey. This will give both his wife and mistress a nearly unique collector's item to sell at a garage sale someday. As for anything further, not only am I the wrong sex to appear in person and sign the name "George" to anything, I refuse to sacrifice my anonymity for anyone, and especially not for Al Black.

So two minutes ago, as I looked down at my books in my hand and closed the outer office door, telling Al to have a good lunch, I was reminded again how much I need Al Black. You see, working for him in the flesh is so much easier than imagining him on my own. Just last week, after three years of repeated trial and error explanations, he showed the first glimmer of understanding the complex and accurate data capture system I spent two months working out with the Information Systems people. He considered it a hefty complement when he told me, "Hon, you're just too smart to be a girl!"

I'll be around, all right, until I record more of his choice remarks. And if I resign before he gets a sideways promotion, I'll sincerely tell him thanks for everything, I really couldn't have done it without him. Yes Sir, certainly Sir, I think as I carefully choose a pen to sign George's name to copies of my book Payday, I'll be around, as long as I need  you Sir, Mr. Alan J. Black Jr., Sir. I'll be around, remark after remark, chapter after chapter, payday after Payday.

Copyright 2004-2021 Sally Jennings www.speak-read-write.com

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